How to start writing on bad days

Maybe you have too much to do. Maybe it’s the opposite and every project you had out there has just been rejected and you feel like you’re having to start all over again. You are. So one quick way to slightly alleviate a certain type of bad day is to always have something else out with an editor or a producer. You can’t do it every time and the chance of book schedules, magazine lead times, Cannes and offers rounds means you will sometimes get that massive pile landing at the same moment. But reduce the odds by taking your breaks midway through projects rather than in between them: it’s not the greatest bandaid in the world that you’re deep into the next thing when a rejection comes, but it is the only bandaid in the world.

Starting over from nothing is similar to having too much to do: you can be overwhelmed with the certainty that actually there’s no point. You think that you cannot get everything finished and you’re certain that you can’t do another giant writing project today.

As a species, we writers are also a bit prone to depression. People who don’t have this seem to believe that it can be fixed by a tickling stick where of course you can really be paralysed by depression at any time. There isn’t a connection between depression and how happy you are yet there is a connection the other way. You can’t make depression better but you can readily make it worse. Depression on a bad day is like an anvil with a knife on it.

So maybe you’re facing this busy mountain or this empty valley, maybe you’re low and if you are depressed then you’ll be feeling it physically too, so everything screams at you that it is impossible to get through this. That it is impossible to get this work done.

The knife is that it’s true.

You may not be in the mood to hear this and you may be under such pressure that you don’t have time to hear it, but you will not magically get everything done because of what I’m going to show you here.

Sorry. I’d like to give you two aspirin and tell you to call me in the morning but you’re a writer, I can’t fool you. And the sooner that we can accept that overwhelming impossibility is impossible for a reason, the sooner we can start whelming.

So here’s the thing. You won’t get it all done but you will get it all started and the time you’re spending now in a tizzy or having to hold your chest to stop the anxiety will be much better spent starting the work. Just starting it. At the beginning, that looks pointless enough to make you sick: the walk of a thousand miles ends with a million steps. But getting started in any way is like ignition: it takes more power to start an engine than to keep it going. And once the engine is going, it wants to keep moving forward.

And what’s more, you may have these pressures and burdens because you’re a writer but you have certain advantages too. You’re a writer: you can fool yourself. I just need you to fool yourself in the same way I do.

You know how parents who also have demanding jobs – so they’ve really got two demanding jobs – can actually find the office work relaxing? There are all these issues of balancing work and life, family and career, and if you have kids you want to be with them and every ignorant bastard seems to blame you if you’re a woman who’s not at home. But in the moment, day to day, when you get to the office, it feels relaxing. That’s because you’re supposed to be there. This is exactly what you are supposed to be doing and there is no option about it for the next eight to ten hours. A gigantic amount of misery comes from constant struggles over whether you’re doing the right thing at the right time: you burn up the day churning instead of doing anything. So that clock, that salary, those office hours, they may dump incredible stresses on you but they take that one away and it’s gigantic.

It’s not as if all this is strictly true, either. If your kid had an accident you’d be out of that office meeting at lightspeed and bollocks to anyone who complains about it. But there is enough truth in it, enough reality to the timetable and the contract that it works. What you need to do is conjure up that same truth for yourself today. Especially if today is a bad day.

So if you’re having a bad one today – whether with your writing or at any job holding you back from writing – just do exactly this right now:

Write down the first five things on your mind. Doesn’t matter if it’s a writing problem or it’s fixing your boiler or a task your non-writing employer wants, just make a note.

Now spend the next hour doing the first thing you wrote down. No debate, no pondering. You wrote it, you do it. You do that and nothing else.

In an hour, put that work away mid-thought.

Spend the next hour doing only the second thing.

Rinse, repeat. But don’t look back. You can have tea. But don’t look back.

The trick of it is only that if you accept that for the next hour you are solely and exclusively doing this one particular thing, it stops you thinking about all the others. Those other things are not your job, not your concern, this is. It is a trick and it isn’t automatic or easy, and it also has the kicker that somewhere around 40 minutes in you will long to get out of this bloody thing and go on to the next or anything else. But if you make yourself work on for those last 20 minutes, it helps make this feel real. It also makes you deep-mine yourself and you can end up writing your best material in the last stretch.

Which you’d think would mean you should then carry on until you finish.


At the end of the hour, stop it and move on. Don’t look back at that last hour, don’t pat yourself on the back or criticise yourself, it’s done. Gone. And now don’t plan the next hour, don’t look ahead to the rest of the day, just take that next thing from the top of your list and now that is solely and exclusively what you are doing for sixty minutes.

The odds are that you will finish some things in each of these hours but it’s almost better when you don’t. Because it’s like novelists who end the day by writing the first line of the next chapter and so know that will get them started tomorrow morning. You probably don’t have time to walk away from all of your writing for a day, but doing this brutal cease-and-desist at the end of the hour means you’re leaving that project with energy and with it all alive in your head. And it means you’re ending the hour before you fade away. All that energy goes into the next project and then at the end of that hour, you’re out before you burn out.

I’m not saying you have to be Sellotaped to your keyboard for the hour, all writing is fueled by vices and on a bad day you need that caffeine or sugar more than ever. But bring the biscuits and the coffee to the desk and get on with it. Sod crumbs. Clean up the mess later, you’re working now.

At the end of the five hours, you will not have completed your work, you will not have met all your pressures and deadlines, you won’t have magically launched an entire new writing project.

But you will be so far ahead of where you were at the start. And typically you’ll still have time left in the day to finish some of the five.

You would imagine that the aim of all this is to get these things done but really it’s about the immense psychological benefits of being that far forward. You had these five things that were impossible, paralysing mountains and now you have these same five things but you’re energetic and alive to them all – and you have made substantial progress too.

Substantial is a relative thing. Stephen King does 2,000 words every morning. James Joyce used to say that “three sentences” was a great day. If you do all this productive concentrating and the product of each hour’s productivity is a single page per project then yes, so, and? That’s a single page you didn’t have at the start.

All of which sounds good and is good but there’s a bit of you bristling at the idea of following steps and procedures and rules and orders. We’re writers. We don’t like any of that.

I’m a writer who doesn’t like outlines and hates writing treatments because I feel I’d rather explore the story on the page. But when I do a Doctor Who audio for Big Finish, for example, I have to do a treatment because that’s what determines whether I get to go on to write the script. Similarly, I’m not a big fan of Robert McKee’s rules but without my trying, the drama I write does tend to fall into the three acts he says it should.

Then within a story we set up certain rules for ourselves and our characters. For example, you know that audiences would feel more than a little cheated if the blind watchmaker with his seven sons – sure an’ they all have a tale to tell – gets out of trouble because he can suddenly see.

We don’t like rules, we don’t like constraints, but we use them. We make them. Writing on a bad day, writing when we don’t want to but we have no choice, is just making some rules for ourselves and sticking to them.

Listen, I don’t know if this will help or even interest, but I started this blog earlier in the week when I was having one such very bad day. I did exactly what I told you here and at the end of the first hour, I had a draft of all of this and moreover I went running energetically into the next hour. That one was a horrible mountain of phone calls and contracts and politics that I wanted to run away from but instead I boomed through the lot and out the other side into a deeply-needed lunch.

Man, it was a good lunch. Bacon sandwiches are loud and they never taste better than when you’ve earned them.

Excerpt from the forthcoming book Productivity for Creative Writers, published September 2013

2 thoughts on “How to start writing on bad days

  1. It’s a good strategy, this.

    It puts me in mind of one of the most useful things anyone ever said to me. I had a boss who was a former world-record-holding runner. I asked him about this achievement and he said, ‘Hilary, the hardest part is putting on your tracksuit.’

    I fancy this strategy will help me get my tracksuit on every hour, on the hour. Excellent.

    I’ll give it a go.

  2. Pingback: The year in biscuits and blogs | Self Distract

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